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An Australian startup just modeled a molecule on a microchip and placed atoms in silicon with subnanometer precision.
This ability to simulate molecules on an atomic scale – where matter is controlled by quantum mechanics – could improve our understanding of the quantum world and lead to the creation of incredible new materials, such as high temperature. supraledare or super efficient solar cells.
“We could start imitating how nature behaves and then we could start making new types of materials and devices that the world has never seen before.” sa Michelle Simmons, founder of Silicon Quantum Computing, the startup responsible for the microchip.
Thinking a little
A couple of million years after making our first stone tools, humans discovered that when we zoom in on matter, look at the atoms and subatomic particles that make up it, they follow a different set of rules than those that control objects on a larger scale.
These rules (“quantum mechanics”) can have their own useful applications – MRI scanners, solar cells and atomic clocks all benefit from quantum phenomena.
“We can start manufacturing new types of materials and devices that the world has never seen before.”
But even though it is easy to lift a rock and extrapolate that it can be good for hitting things, it is not so easy to see or understand how matter behaves on the quantum scale – especially since observation itself affects quantum systems.
We can use computer programs to simulate how certain small molecules behave at the atomic or subatomic level, but it is not a viable alternative for larger molecules: there are too many possible interactions between their particles.
“If we can begin to understand material at [the quantum] level, we can design things that have never been done before, ”Simmons said told ScienceAlert. “The question is: how do you really control nature at that level?”
The quantum simulator
The answer seems to be by modeling molecules on silicon chips.
For a recent studyThe SQC team successfully manufactured an atomic-scale microchip, created 10 artificial atoms of the same size – also known as “quantum dots” – and then used a scanning tunnel microscope to accurately place the dots in silicon.
The team modeled its chip on the structure of polyacetylene, a molecule made of carbon and hydrogen atoms linked by alternating single and double carbon bonds.
Once built, they could apply an electrical charge to one part of the chip (the “source”) and study how it moved along the atomic chain to exit at another part (the “drain”).
“We build it literally from the bottom up, where we mimic the polyacetylene molecule by putting atoms in silicon at exact distances that represent the single- and double-carbon bonds,” sa Simmons.
Based on theoretical predictions, polyacetylene is thought to behave differently depending on whether the chain of molecules begins and ends with double carbon bonds or single carbon bonds.
To check if their modeling technique was correct, the researchers created a chip based on each version – and saw that the number of electrical peaks changed as the current passed through each version.
“This confirms long-standing theoretical predictions and demonstrates our ability to accurately simulate the polyacetylene molecule,” according to the SQC.
The team also observed an electron that was present in two places at the same time, an example of the quantum phenomenon superposition.
“What [this model is] shows is that you can literally mimic what actually happens in the real molecule, and that’s why it’s exciting because the signatures of the two chains are very different, says Simmons.
What comes next?
The team chose a chain with 10 points of the polyacetylene molecule to demonstrate its technology because it is something we can simulate with classic computers. Now they want to scale up.
“We’re close to the limit of what classic computers can do, so it’s like stepping into the unknown,” Simmons said. “And this is what’s exciting – we can now make larger devices that are beyond what a classic computer can model.”
These future quantum models could be for materials that lead to new batteries, drugs and more, Simmons predicts.
“It will not be long before we can start realizing new materials that have never existed before,” she said.
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